As a measure of just how far Everton have come in the last calendar year, ponder this hypothetical; it is one year ago, February 2, 2013. Everton are hosting Aston Villa, a club floating in mid-to-low table mediocrity. Now, let's just pretend that Nikica Jelavic, Victor Anichebe, Darron Gibson, Seamus Coleman, Bryan Oviedo, and Steven Naismith are all injured, and Marouane Fellaini is mired in arguably his worst form of the season. Do you truly expect the Toffees to take 3 points?
Fast forward to this weekend, against the same Aston Villa club. Romelu Lukaku, Arouna Kone, Darron Gibson, Seamus Coleman, Bryan Oviedo, and Gerard Deulofeu are all injured, and Ross Barkley is mired in arguably his worst form of the season. What were your expectations in this match?
We can chastise David Moyes for his negative tactics all we would like (and sometimes with reason), but if Moyes and the club he had put together last year faced the influx of injuries that Martinez's side has this year, there simply would have been nothing the Scotsman could have done. We can talk about the improvements that individual players have brought ad infinitum, but what makes Everton this year superior to Everton last year, above all else, is the club's depth.
Upset with Steven Pienaar's performance in the Merseyside Derby? Not a problem for this year's Everton; keep Ross Barkley in the lineup, and slot Osman out to the left. No healthy traditional strikers? Not a problem either. Slide Kevin Mirallas centrally to play striker, and put in Aiden McGeady down the right wing. No Seamus Coleman? 19-year-old John Stones has the right-back spot covered, even after a poor Derby.
But it is about much more than the depth alone; with the influx of able players, Everton needed a manager capable of pulling all the right strings, keeping all the players happy, and getting the right players in the right positions at the right time. Roberto Martinez has been just that.
"But did you watch the Liverpool match Adam?!" I hear you yell at your computer screen. "He absolutely set us up to fail there! it was unacceptable!"
If this was you (and I certainly don't blame you if it was), I offer two responses in defense of Martinez.
First, the inclusion of the (apparently) less than fully fit Ross Barkley and Steven Pienaar was likely the most controversial decision Martinez made, but what else could the manager have done?
Perhaps Leon Osman could have started in place of Barkley, but Ossie's best performances have been off the bench this season, and Martinez certainly could not be faulted for not wanting Aiden McGeady's first start in blue to be on such a big stage.
Second, and more generally though, when else has Martinez even possibly made poor personnel choices that have cost us points? I'm hard pressed to find another glaring example.
In dealing with a rash of injuries, he's managed to keep the back-line tight (Liverpool match excluded of course), and put out a side that generally dominates possession.
Martinez's outright successful decisions have been well documented as well. Against Chelsea in September, he started Steven Naismith in the absence of Steven Pienaar, and the Scotsman scored the match's only goal. Against Hull City in October, he reintroduced Pienaar to the lineup at the perfect time in the match, and the South African scored with his first touch of the match.
The following week, the 60th minute introduction of Leon Osman powered Everton to 2 goals in the last half hour to defeat Aston Villa. Gerard Deulofeu scored the equalizer at the Emirates just 5 minutes after being brought in. Substitute Steven Pienaar played a crucial role in the game-winning goal against Southhampton in December.
Of course, this week it was the introduction of Steven Naismith and Steven Pienaar that was the catalyst for another 3 points.
While it hasn't always been pretty, Evertonians ought to be pleased with being only 2 points away from a Champions League spot with 14 matches to play, given all the injuries the club has had to cope with all season. With the depth the Toffees have right now, and Martinez making key decisions, there's no reason why they cannot make the top four a reality.